How AMD stumbled with Socket AM2

How AMD stumbled with Socket AM2

Summary: When AMD released the Socket AM2 platform during May of this year, many expected it to be a huge hit - after all, it supported DDR2, sporting a 30% increase memory bandwidth, and introduced new features such as hardware virtualization. The Socket AM2 platform took what AMD had learned from the Socket 939 platform and built upon it.Now, four months on from launch, and the AM2 platform has been largely sidelined and the Socket 939 platform still dominates mainstream AMD PCs. Why? Where did AMD go wrong with AM2?

TOPICS: Processors

AMD logoWhen AMD released the Socket AM2 platform during May of this year, many expected it to be a huge hit - after all, it supported DDR2, sporting a 30% increase memory bandwidth, and introduced new features such as hardware virtualization.  The Socket AM2 platform took what AMD had learned from the Socket 939 platform and built upon it.

Now, four months on from launch, and the AM2 platform has been largely sidelined and the Socket 939 platform still dominates mainstream AMD PCs.  Why?  Where did AMD go wrong with AM2?

Modest performance gains

The biggest problem with the AM2 platform is not that it isn't powerful, but that it doesn't offer the huge boost in performance that users saw when they moved to the K8 platform.  If you made the shift to AM2 then you could be lucky to see a performance boost of, say 10% over an equivalent Socket 939 CPU, but if you were unlucky you might get no more than about 3%. 

If you're neither blessed nor cursed, you'd probably see a performance gain of about 5%.  Problem is, 5% can only be called a modest performance boost at best and it's certainly nothing to write home about.

Put simply, the Socket 939 platform was just too darn good for its time.


Athlon 64 X2 AM2You might be able to sell a modest boost in performance to the consumer if the price is right.  Unfortunately, AMD hasn't been able to pitch the AM2 at a price point that matches the minimal performance gains it offers.  Basically, while consumers can get their hands on a Socket 939 that is only a fraction less powerful for less money, economics are against the AM2.

PC buyers don't worry about the future

There's no doubt that taking the AM2 route means you are, to a certain extent, future-proofing your PC.  But the truth of the matter is few consumers worry about what the future holds for their PC.  They buy it and use it until it gets old or broken then they unplug the power cable, landfill the PC and replace it with a new one. 

What's the point in paying a premium for a more future-proof platform when it's not going to be upgraded?  Just because you can fit an AM3 CPU into an AM2 socket doesn't mean the masses will bother.  I'm not saying it's not a good idea, just that it's a tough sell.

"AM2" confused the consumer

Socket AM2Tell the consumer what they want or need and they'll whip out their wallets or purses and buy (well, that's the idea anyway) but give them a choice between two things that are hard to distinguish and you introduce a third choice - that they should buy something else.  For most buyers the difference between Socket 939393 and Socket AM2 was just a name.  Trying to explain the technology sends them into a coma, and trying to make a 5% performance boost sound significant is just hyperbole.

Get beyond the name and next they noticed that AMD were selling CPUs with the same name (for example, Athlon 3800). 

All this automatically introduced the third (and fourth) choice to the customer - buy cheap (Socket 939) or buy Intel.

Core 2 Duo/Conroe

Conroe/Core 2 DuoOne thing that made the Socket 939 look so good was how bad Intel's Netburst architecture was.  However, as AMD were launching the AM2, Intel was releasing information about their Conroe platform.  Not only that, but Intel also made sure a few Conroe engineering samples fell into the right hands, and pretty soon it was clear that Conroe wasn't just a little bit better than the AM2, Conroe left it choking in it's dust.  The message was clear - if you want power and the freedom to overclock, the Core 2 Duo was the platform to go for.

This meant the AM2 platform was trapped between the cheaper Socket 939 and the far more powerful Core 2 Duo.

AM2 is the future

Despite the lukewarm reception the AM2 platform has had, it still represents the future for AMD.  From this platform will spawn the AM3, the K8L, and 4x4.

Things are far from over in the CPU arms race.

Topic: Processors

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  • Evolutionary versus revolutionary

    Socket AM2 by itself does not demand that you throw away your motherboard and RAM for an upgrade.

    It's what comes next that will spur [b]new[/b] sales for AM2-based systems. 4x4 being one of those, quad-core being another.

    If you've already got a Socket 939 box then you're not going to throw away that investment. If you're buying a new system then you'd be daft to not go AM2. So, yes, AM2 isn't going to drive tons of people to run out and replace the whole system, but then how often have people gone out and replaced the entire motherboard, CPU, RAM set for any upgrade?

    (IMHO if you're replacing the triumvirate then you go and look at buying a new box since you're going to be stuck with an essentially whole PC's worth of parts after the upgrade.)
    Robert Crocker
    • What you describe...

      is Exactly what the enthusiast wants to avoid. Most enthusiasts do not buy box machines. We build our own.
  • I think it's simple...

    We enthusiasts are tired of replacing motherboards every 5 minutes. When you purchase a $200+ motherboard, you expect to be able to upgrade it at least once or twice.

    It hasn't been that way lately and it's getting tiring...

    • Amen!

      AMD's recent game of "musical sockets" puts people off of buying them, simply because they change so fast. It doesn't make sense to change boards that quickly.

      What we in the community want is socket stability! :D
      D. W. Bierbaum
  • Cite your sources

    [b]Now, four months on from launch, and the AM2 platform has been largely sidelined and the Socket 939 platform still dominates mainstream AMD PCs.[/b]

    I have no idea where the author is getting this information, nor do I even know what it means.
    Does this mean that Socket 939 motherboards are
    outselling AM2 motherboards? Doe this mean that AM2 motherboards are not replacing Socket 939 motherboards in existing machines as rapidly as
    someone believes they should?

    As the author states, AMD is now in 2nd place in the performance race with Intel's competitive announcements. A year ago, the performance crowd-gamers were buying AMD almost exclusively.
    Now most such people are choosing Intel.

    When it comes time to replace my Socket 939 motherboard, I'll see who has the most bang for
    the bug, and buy it. Either way, I know that I'll be buying new memory. In fact, I'll probably just
    give my old PC to a relative or friend, and build one from the ground up.

    Finally, the nutty nerds such as myself that still build our own PCs account for less than 1% of the PCs out there. Add to that the majority of PCs I build are not built for speed, but for cost. The last 2 boxes I built were Socket 754 boxes that were less than $300 for all the parts (after the rebate checks come anyway). Mom has a web-cruising, emailing monster box that puts her old Pentium 450 to shame. :)
  • Can you say Microsoft?

    The mainstream user not talking about the geeks really have no need for 64bit.

    Windows xp 64 bit doesn't support a lot and Vista is getting delayed more and more.

    So until Windows goes 64bit why should we upgrade if our pc's still work?

    MS delay is really missing the 64bit boat.
    Randall Lind
    • 64-bit adoption though... VMs!

      May be it's not that bad. Do we really need our traditional PC-centered OSes on 64-bit platforms?

      Why not giving more importance to VM technologies, and make the underlying hardware architecture more neutral?

      Here I mean: processors that are built to run VMs on which applications can be deployed independantly of their location.

      Where is the strategy to support Java and .Net more natively on processors, and then make a virtual OS based on these VMs running on virtual but highly scalable PCs?

      If the VM stategy is followed, we could reach much better of applications, simply because of the huge progress in dynamic compilation and tuning performed by VMs; we could end the nightmares of installations of hardware drivers.

      Now with such VMs, it won't be necessary to support the legacy binaries, and processors would be simplified a lot, providing increased performance with lower energy wasted, and reduced price per core, allowing for the true develomment of massively parallel solutions in an heterogeneous but highly connected world of processing units.
      • VMs?

        Back in the day, we used to call them "dumb terminals"
  • New bus now means readiness for makers

    A new bus released now, even if it has modest performance gains with the current K8 design is not a bad choice; This means that PC makers will be immediately ready with the next generations of AMD chips, and that this boards will not be as expensive as new boards made for new processors, and with less hardware bugs (something that has plagged several times every newest Intel sockets, and caused nightmares to PC buyers having lots of problems with extension devices or RAM extensions).

    Clearly, sockets are avolving to support multiple parallel buses instead of just 2 for the CPU and the GPU as today; multicore CPUs will have distinct needs for each task supported in each core, and the way to interface it with other PC components will be multiple; future PCs will be like meshed networks of many small devices working in parallel, and the CPU will no longer be the central unit to perform all applications; this is already true for the GPU, but it will be more and more important for lots of peripherals that are getting smarter, have their own programmable processing power, or that will perform various specialized tasks (imagine a few: security algorithms, compression, multimedia codecs, network routing, smart device-to-device transfers, antivirus and firewalls, and even filesystems or possibly local search and indexing engines, or database systems).

    In other words, the PC of tomorrow will be a network of services, and benefiting of multiple buses will allow different strategies, using dynamic routing of tasks and services, possibly with heterogeneous devices with various capabilities but "speaking" the same binary language.

    Now we are ready to assist to the emergence of multiple, decentralized, massively parallel processing, where the local PC will be part of a scalable larger network (including the internet) where applications and services will run on any available processing unit.

    We are just at the begining with multicore chips. The revolution will come true with the ubiquitous use of network services, and virtual machines. But this will require new development tools and languages, adoption of interoperable standards, and interfaces with lots of domotic devices with various networking technologies (WiFi, RFID, CPL, DSL). As FTTH deployment will become soon strategic worldwide, at the same time as mobile technologies, the "connected" Internet world will need to expand and allow ineroperability and interaction from all sorts of accesses.

    Already, the emergence of FTTH (and IPv6 for "zero-config" mobile devices) is a challenge for hardware makers due to the increased bandwidth that a CPU can only handle very costly, but not the most efficiently. The other factor is the convergence of all media technologies and supports.

    But let's come back to the AM2/AM3 strategy: I don't see that as an error, even if it starts slowly: this does not limit AMD to continue developping its cores and interfacing it with the current sockets. It just gives more time for manufacturers to prepare excellent boards for next generation CPUs, and economically it is interesting for manufacturers to have a clear indication of where AMD is going to with its line of processors. I just hope that AMD made the AM2 socket to help integrating new kind of external processing devices, and that it paves the way to more scalable solutions where processing power can be added at anytime without necessarily having to throw away one PC for another (remember that this is waste, difficult and expensive to recycle, and that national legislations are being improved to stop wasting these resources or polluting our environment with hardware products deprecated every 2 or 3 years).

    So: make things small and simple, durable, energy efficient, hot-pluggable, easily replaceable or serviceable, but easily scalable with excellent networking connectivity, and prepare for the interaction of these multiple devices working together for the same or better results. At the same time, allow for the integration of these many devices into simple to install "kits" such as PCs; but don't think that current PCs are the future of computing; the future is the network where all the processing power will be.
  • Ya think someone might buy a clue here...

    Socket AM2 and DDR2 was NEVER intended to be a performance enhancement per se because AMD CPUs do not have the data bandwidth bottleneck that Intel CPUs have. With AMD's on-CPU memory controller, DDR2 is really for use with future CPUs not the current X2 models. AMD simply doesn't have bandwidth issues like Intel so AM2 was never intended to be a performance upgrade short term. AMD adopted DDR2 to assist those who desire to have the latest memory now that the price of DDR2 has dropped substantially.
  • Er.. Socket 393...?

    [b] For most buyers the difference between Socket 393 and Socket AM2 was just a name. [/b]

    Er.. You meant Socket 939.. I hope...
    • Thanks

      Slip of the fingers.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
  • 4X4

    Could you please explain this - "From this platform will spawn the AM3, the K8L, and 4?4." ?

    How will AM2 pave the way for 4X4, when 4X4 will be Socket F/LGA 1207?
  • No stumble.

    Did you expect a majority of users to throw away their expensive ram if they upgrade? I dont.

    I have just installed a new motherboard and a new cheap processor. I used my ram which is fast CL2 ram, and the rest of the components.

    I got a new, fast machine for peanuts sice AMB lowered their CPU prices recently.

    Next time I will go for AM2 though. And sell or donate my old 939.

    AM2 is fine for new PC'S, but not for upgrades. I would have thought the author understood that.
    • Take a look around ...

      How many of the big vendors do you see offering a full line of AM2 PCs? Mostly it's still 939s.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
  • AM2 is ok by me

    Do I care what average Joe thinks or buys? No. That ain't me, as John Fogerty said. I went from a 1.2GHz Thunderbird to a 2.4GHz Windsor. In real terms, from encoding 5 frames per second of DVD video to up to 90 frames per second, or from 15 frames per second in a newer video game to 75 frames per second. Do I buy, buy, buy all the time? Upgrade, replace, consume? No, I am not a consumer. My last PC lasted me almost ten years. I think AM2 is better than 939 simply because it allows for even moderately better peripheral choices, like DDR2, and BIOS improvements that lead to more hardware tweaking options. The philosophy of playing toward the middle of the bell curve to the exclusion of all else has got to stop. Maximizing profits also means maximizing mediocrity, which is where most of the consumerist spending power is. Actually, that's not going to stop, no matter what any of us write here. Since my opinion is outside the bell curve, it's not going to count for much.
  • Splitting article to collect page hits?

    And what is this with taking a single column length article and splitting it into "pages" of one or two paragraphs? Every web "magazine" is doing it. Is it so important to collect page hits? To make sure every advertisement gets shown five times for each article read? Has the Web gotten that cheezy? This article took about a minute to read, and except that it required six page changes. If I had a paper magazine in my hand and an advertisement had been inserted between each paragraph, I would be a bit annoyed and would think twice about paying for that magazine in the future. That's what's happening here. Stop it. Just stop. And before you say, well, you're not paying for this, yes, I am, with my monthly broadband bill, and with my time (which, eventually, is what my money is), which I cannot have back. If advertisements end up consuming 10% of my life, I will avoid them completely and those who wish to impose them upon me. I do that my watching less and less television and recording ahead of time that which I do want to see. It would not be difficult to write a program that grabs info off the web without all the crap that is pasted around it. I haven't gotten into RSS, yet, so I don't know if it's already being done. I dread that day when reality becomes indistinguishable from Spielberg's version of Minority Report. Robinson Crusoe's misadventure would be enviable at that point.
  • Then why have socket 939 MBs almost disappeared?

    AM2 is pretty much the standard for any AMD-based system now. The few 939 MBs available are mini-ATX from just a few sources and probably just dead inventory.